The Problem with the White House Case Against New Iranian Sanctions

The Problem with the White House Case Against New Iranian Sanctions

I am inclined to be sympathetic to the White House argument (presented ably by Colin Kahl here) that we must be careful lest the imposition of new sanctions becomes an excuse for the Iranian regime to renege on a possible deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program. As I have been arguing for some time, negotiations with Iran will end successfully only if we maintain sufficient pressure, and yet also only if we can credibly promise the Iranian regime that truly cooperative behavior will be rewarded. One has to thread a narrow needle.

Back in August, before the latest round of negotiations with Iran had started in earnest, I thought threading the needle would entail passing new sanctions but giving President Obama a national security waiver on them and having Obama exercise that waiver.

Now that the negotiations have reached a more advanced state — with a reported interim deal, albeit an "interim deal" that has not started because there are still apparently irreconcilable technical differences between the two sides — defenders of Obama’s preferred approach can make a partially compelling argument that my gambit would not work.

Their argument is only partially compelling, however, because the Obama team is not as candid as it could be in explaining how we got here. The Obama team version of the story is one in which a tough-minded president musters robust international support for crushing sanctions and then deftly moves to the negotiating table at just the right moment. That is not quite how it happened. The administration squandered the first couple years of handling the Iran file, and only reached the current level of economic pressure when Congress ignored earlier pleas by the administration and imposed over administration objections the very sanctions the administration now credits with having brought Iran to the bargaining table. It is true that the administration has said that no deal is better than a bad deal, but there are reasons to worry that the president may be so eager for any deal that he will make greater concessions than are prudent. 

A fairer reading of the history shows that the hawks have at least as compelling an explanation of how we got here as the doves. That does not mean that the hawkish option is always the right one tactically at every turn, but it does mean that it deserves a more careful hearing than it has gotten thus far.

In other words, President Obama would be more persuasive in making the case for the dovish no-more-sanctions option right now if he could be more forthright about the relative merits of the hawkish critique. And failure to do so reinforces concerns that his rhetoric about having a policy of "prevention" and not "containment" is just rhetoric, and not a red line he actually would defend. Those concerns, in turn, make it harder to give him the diplomatic leeway he says he needs to test the Iranians.